TELFORD VICE, Auckland
NEW Zealand is a long way from the rest of the world, and Dunedin, way down south on south island, is a long way – in every sense – from the rest of New Zealand.
Frigid antarctic winds scream up frozen streets, ready to rip noses off faces with the brutal efficiency of a cheese grater lopping the tip off an errant finger.
At night those streets spill with students suicidily underdressed save for their “beer blankets”.
The elements are challenging enough to chase even the hardiest heroes of Kiwi culture, rugby players, indoors: the All Blacks and the Highlanders play under the sheltering roof of Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr stadium.
Behind one deadball line a fence keeps players safe from the inhabitants of the zoo, which cages slews of “scarfies”, or Otago University students.
Just 200 metres from this inverted fortress, an oasis of serenity sprawls in singular splendour.
A pitch, an outfield, a boundary, a couple of sightscreens and dressingrooms, a scarcity of stands, a hug of grass banks and a nearby wooded hill make University Oval a minimalist’s delight of a cricket ground.
Everything elemental to playing and watching cricket is present and correct at this antithesis of a stadium. And not a thing more.
Can it be an accident that a team from sweaty South Africa, used to watching rugby in vast bowls of beery raucousness and playing cricket in environments only slightly more civilised, have been taken as far out of their comfort zone as is possible on one planet?
No. Kiwis are canny. If the fact that Wednesday’s first test between New Zealand and South Africa is in Dunedin is an accident, then Edmund Hillary thought he and Tenzing Norgay were climbing Table Mountain when they were scaling Everest.
Which is not to suggest unfairness, unless South Africans want to debate the fairness of making teams from places that produce subtly flavoured conditions start home series in that veritable vindaloo of swing, seam and bounce called Centurion.
Equally accordingly, the Saffers have been plummeted way down south after spending days in the wan but welcome sunshine of Auckland, a template for city living at its best, preparing for and playing Saturday’s fifth one-day international.
No surprise, then, that Faf du Plessis conceded on Friday that Saturday’s result would have an impact going into the test series.
“Momentum is always great,” Du Plessis said. “From a batting point of view, for guys to take momentum into the tests and the form you take with it (is significant).
“But a team’s momentum is vital because it’s an extra bit of confidence, especially with the quick turnaround.
“I suppose you can look at it both ways. If you ask me, when we’ve lost a game, does it play a role, I’d probably say, ‘No – it’s a new format’. And if we won I’d say yes.”
Which makes you wonder what the South Africans would say if they win in Dunedin. In their only test there, in March 2012, they had half a hand on New Zealand’s throat after four days – when the home side were 137/2 chasing 401. Day five? Washed out. Of course.
From Dunedin, the teams travel to Wellington and its gothic cathedral of a ground, the Basin Reserve, where South Africa have won four tests, drawn two, and never lost.
Then it’s on to Hamilton and Seddon Park. The second test was played there in 2012, when South Africa won the only undrawn match of the series by nine wickets. Vernon Philander, who took 10/114 in that match, is back, as is his rasping form.
The two ODIs in Hamilton on the current tour featured sticky toffee pitches, prompting Du Plessis to wonder “what the test wicket plays like when we go back there.”
Right now, that depends on what happens a long way from the rest of New Zealand.